Sunday, April 13, 2008

Resilient Community: Microgrids by John Robb

Electricity is the lifeblood of modernity, but it is going to become much more expensive (fuel expense/availability) and unavailable (due to an increase in random failures via underinvestment to a plethora of black swan scenarios). As such, communities need to gain control over the flows of electricity in order to become resilient. One of the first steps towards this goal is through the concept of the Microgrid. Essentially it is a local power network connected to the national/regional grid through a smart switch.

Why the Microgrid?

There's been lots of exploration at the national level on incorporating computing architectures (data services plus sensors) into the grid system (known under the rubric "the Smart Grid"). Unfortunately, these efforts suffer from the step function problem. This means that the changes contemplated are too expensive and too wrenching to accomplish on a large scale (akin to boiling the ocean). The only way to implement these new technologies and methods is to find a way to do it organically. The Microgrid enables this by creating a local network (electricity plus data services) that can become a platform for the organic growth of a diverse and innovative ecosystem of solutions and providers.

What it Does

A Microgrid enables the ability to do the following:

* to disconnect from the national grid when there is a general utility failure. This enables a combination of back-up power systems from third party providers -- everything from flywheels to back-up generators (very much the same approach that data-centers use).

* to build a local market for power production. Since the Microgrid buys power in volume from the national grid, it will likely get dynamic pricing data (time of day, etc.). This data allows the Microgrid to offer local producers of electricity the ability to sell into the Microgrid at competitive prices (peer to peer production). Of course, if local power production is a priority, then the price comparison can be weighted via subsidies to favor local producers.

* to add smart features that will only get nominal deployment on the national grid. For example, the ability to add smarts to devices and homes to allow customers to manage their consumption of electricity at a granular level -- from price to device.

WIM (what it means)

It's important to point out that Microgrid technology and processes have applicability to:

* Counter-insurgency. Even though tens of billions of dollars have been invested in the reconstruction of Iraq, we still can't keep the lights on in Baghdad. Microgrids could make this possible.

* Development. Microgrids provide a mechanism for organic growth in developing economies plagued by badly functioning national grids.

* Competitive advantage. Communities that get this right (high availability power that is also very clean), will gain a competitive edge in competing for residents and business flow. The pay-off is higher home values and better/more jobs.

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